Analysis: Should Cambridge dons be made to retire at 67?

Eleanor Dickinson 26 April 2012

Following the government’s abolition of the default retirement age, Eleanor Dickinson discusses the potential implementation of a Cambridge ‘Employer Justified Retirement Age’ of 67 for academics.

Cambridge University has always been one for doing things its own way; the response to the government’s abolition of the default retirement age was not going to be an exception.

This week Regent House will vote to decide whether Cambridge will implement its own Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA), in which University academics will be expected to take their retirement at the age of 67.

If the vote goes through, many academics who have reached 67 could be out by the end of this academic year. However, this is to apply only to academics, while other University staff will have no age limits set on their retirement.

This comes after the government officially abolished the default retirement age (DRA) back in October 2011. In a move aimed at tackling age discrimination in the workplace, employers are no longer able to compulsorily retire workers upon reaching the age of 65. Though employers will still be able to enforce retirement at a certain age, their grounds must now be objectively founded, and no longer based solely upon age.

Though reportedly one in 10 firms in the UK are intending to offer financial incentives for people to leave at a certain age, Cambridge has gone one step further by setting up its own EJRA. Under this policy, academics, upon reaching 67, must either take their pension or reapply to stay at the University.

Other options available to them include the possibility of ‘flexible retirement’, whereby academics are still able to work a reduced number of hours, and take a portion of their pension. In ‘exceptional circumstances’, the employee can potentially work unpaid for the University in what is called a ‘Voluntary Research Agreement’. Whatever the options though, the number 67 now signifies an uncertain future for Cambridge academics.

Many academics are naturally outraged by the proposals. Professor of Pharmacology at Christ’s College, Peter McNaughton called the proposals “a breach of a fundamental human right”.

He added: “This is discrimination of the most naked kind. Just because mental function tends to decline with age does not mean that a person can be automatically deemed to be incompetent at the moment the clock ticks 67.”

Professor Lorraine Tyler of Clare College also suggested as an alternative: “Instead of putting in place discriminatory processes, the University could ensure that all academics are productive by adopting enhanced performance management procedures instead.

“This would be within the spirit of the UK legislation and the EU directive on age discrimination and it would satisfy legislation on human rights.”

However, Cambridge argues that, without a policy, academic staff would not retire soon enough and would therefore prevent younger staff from entering the University. The policy’s purpose, as outlined in the proposals, is to “ensure inter-generational fairness” and “to refresh the academy in providing opportunities for career development to those at an early stage of their academic career”.

Furthermore, a number of academics have spoken up in favour of introducing an EJRA, including Newhnam Professor of Classics Mary Beard. She said, “Academic jobs are in short supply and you don’t want departments dominated by the excellent but elderly.

“Those who are left to decide their own retirement age don’t always know when to go. And trying to push them out when they are 80-plus and past it is no fun for anyone.”

Furthermore, Professor Thomas Korner, a Fellow at Trinity Hall, argued that an ageing academic workforce actually stipulates a decline in standards: “Age improves wine up to a certain point, but, after that point, deterioration sets in.”

Professor Korner also points out, “Retirement will be automatic at a particular age… It is simply proposed that the University and not the individual will judge whether they are sufficiently valuable to make deferred retirement worthwhile.”

These opposing views aside, what may prove problematic in future for the University is the legality of enforcing this policy. Professor Catherine Barnard, who is involved with putting the EJRA together, explained to The Cambridge Student: “This is a highly charged issue which requires balancing of a number of competing interests.

“Unfortunately the law is not as clear as it might be but I hope that the Supreme Court decision in the Seldon case will address this.”

The Seldon case was resolved just yesterday, with the Supreme Court rejecting Lesley Seldon’s appeal against being compulsorily retired after turning 65. Whatever this outcome may prove in the long term, Professor Barnard stressed she believed “that an EJRA, combined with the safeguards provided for by the university, is in the best interests of this university”.

However, it should be noted that Cambridge is not alone in its consideration of an EJRA; TCS has learned that Oxford University also plans to establish its own retirement age.

Therefore, regardless of the results of this week’s vote, it is apparent that the issues of age within the academic community are far from resolved.

Eleanor Dickinson